When we first started getting material about Skylanders, one question was echoed by nearly every member of our staff, “Are those toys?!” We didn’t “get it” and, honestly, we didn’t really want to. The game was barely a blip on the radar until I had the chance to talk to someone on the development team at Toys for Bob. What I heard piqued my interest.
Skylanders is the latest in a long line of products that has promised to connect physical toys to digital entertainment. Gamers of my generation might remember a television show called Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future that had a companion space fighter that could “interact” with the show. It couldn’t, it was a farce and the toy was crap. How about Photon (kind of like laser tag)? Same thing. More recently, there was Eye of Judgment, which probably bears the closest resemblance to the type of interaction in Skylanders. All I’m trying to say is that this type of design has a really bad track record.
The game is sold in starter packs that come with three Skylanders “interaction figures” and a “Portal of Power” (more on expanding your collection with boosters later). The story goes that the Skylands have been invaded by Kaos, who has destroyed the core of light and, in the process, has sent the Skylander champions hurtling through space. The heroes are frozen, but with the help of young “Portal Masters” (read: kids), they can be placed on the Portal of Power and transported back to Skyland to help defeat Kaos. By now, you might be saying things like “cash grab” and “gimmick.” I was in the exact same place when I first learned about the game, so hopefully it will mean something when I tell you that Skylanders is a charming, fun and brilliantly designed game that is enhanced by the figures, not restricted by them.
Skylanders is an action-RPG that is designed for young gamers. It is not a “kiddie” game. There is combat, there are puzzles and there are real upgrades that are unique to each character. It is a rich, deep experience that will keep players entertained long after the full roster of 32 figures (not including the few that have variants) is released. At times, the game reminds me of a very accessible Gauntlet. You will find keys to unlock doors, consume food to restore your health and defeat monster generators to progress.
Like most contemporary Action-RPGs, your damage (dealt and received) is shown in floating numbers above the characters’ heads. The puzzles largely involve simple block pushing, but you’ll always know which way blocks can move. Also, you cannot fall off the side of the play area unless you are supposed to. This will prevent younger players from dying regularly due to lack of coordination.
The game does allow two-player simultaneous action by placing a second figure on the Portal. Players are restricted to a single screen and a tether line appears if they start to drift too far apart. Between the arrows on blocks, the tether line and the inability to fall off the world, the designers behind Skylanders have created a game that teaches young players about gaming tropes in the friendliest way possible.
As I mentioned, the game comes with three figures, with additional characters available in individual- or three-packs. There are also Adventure Packs that come with a character, a new location and two magic items. The figures work with any copy of the game, on any system, including the 3DS, which is a different game experience. I had the opportunity to play the game on both the XBox 360 and the PS3 and experienced absolutely no issues in moving my figures back and forth between the two.
You’ll still want to play the game primarily on one system since, much like any other game, your story progress is saved to your system’s memory device. Your characters, though, progress independently of the story, allowing you to use upgraded stats and powers in different save slots or at a friend’s house. Each figure is registered to the first player that uses it, but changing ownership, should you wish to, is extremely easy. Each figure can also be nicknamed, so if you do happen to be at a friend’s house, it’s easy to tell the figures apart simply by putting them on the Portal.
Throughout the game, you will collect treasure, earn experience and find stat-boosting hats. The game eases players into the mechanics, encouraging experimentation with different characters before allowing the purchase of new powers at the end of Chapter 3. At any one time there are two skills available to purchase that might enhance your standard attack (A/X), secondary attack (X/Square) or unlock a special ability (B/Circle) like flight or bombs.
The game incentivizes purchase of additional figures in a couple of ways. First, there are side areas in every location that are unlocked only when using a figure of the proper element. There are eight different elements (Fire, Water, Air, Earth, Life, Magic, Tech and Undead), but only three come with the starter pack. You can play and enjoy the entire game with just those starter figures, but to get the full experience, you’ll want at least one figure in each of the eight elements.
Additionally, each new figure unlocks a new heroic challenge, which is accessible by any of the characters. Completing the heroic challenges rewards you with a significant stat boost to one of your five core areas: Health, Speed, Armor, Critical Hits and Elemental Power (the damage boost you get when using your character in an aligned zone). Some of them are a bit sinister in their difficulty, but the game also warns you which are more challenging. Between the available skills that require treasure to purchase and the heroic challenges, two level 10 (the maximum level) Spyro figures, for instance, can still have different stats and abilities. Of course, should you wish to start over with one of your figures, you can simply reset it from inside the game. Conversely, if you want to level up your character, earn additional treasure to afford new abilities or simply take new figures through the story, you can easily return to previously completed areas. This also allows you to find hidden rare treasures, hidden areas and Soul Gems, which are unique items that unlock a powerful ability for a specific Skylander. Missing one? Don’t worry. Once you can upgrade, that menu will tell you where to find that Skylander’s Soul Gem.
Review copy provided by publisher. Primary play on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
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